Joan Aiken: Dido and Pa
Illustrated by Pat Marriott
Red Fox 2004 (1987)
No sooner was Dido Twite back in London for the coronation of Richard IV (in The Cuckoo Tree) then she found herself back in rural West Sussex, and all this after long eventful years crisscrossing the globe. And now, no sooner has she met up with Simon — the boy who had taken care of her when she was a Cockney guttersnipe — then she is snabbled by no less a personage than her musical yet nefarious father … back to London! What plans does he have for her, and for what purposes?
On the banks of the Thames, in London’s East End, Dido is forced to associate with a rum lot of naffy coves, from the cigar-smoking slattern Mrs Bloodvessel via havy-cavy types with fungoid names to the slumguzzling nob the Margrave of Eisengrim, truly the most vulpine villain Dido has yet to meet. And then there are the fresh waves of wolves coming through the tunnel under the English Channel, overrunning Kent and nearing London with every day…
Joan Aiken’s wonderful imagination has purloined memes and motifs, facts and fictions from all over the place, making this instalment of the Wolves Chronicles as complex and colourful as any of the preceding ones. The context is an alternative Dickensian London in the 1830s, still recognisable but reflected in a distorting mirror. There are street children and wintry conditions, confidence tricksters and forbidding warehouses, and contrasts between the obscenely rich and the disadvantaged poor. But just as the novel exhibits a degree of social commentary so does it include the sparkling wit we expect from the author’s depiction of this world.
There’s so much one can say about this novel but here I want to concentrate on the figures who feature in its title, Dido and her father. Dido, as we now know, has a heart of gold tempered by pragmatism and experience, so while she doesn’t trust Pa in the least she recognises he has just one redeeming feature, and that’s to produce exquisite music that’s a delight to hear as well as a balm to both soul and body. Appointed as Kapellmeister to the Margrave, who for all his wickedness has recognised the intrinsic worth and beauty of Abednego Twite’s compositions and performing, Dido’s Pa keeps up a steady stream of lyrical and lively pieces with titles like Calico Pie, Three Herrings for a Ha’penny and Black Cat Coming Down Stairs. Dido remembers and treasures these melodies and remains entranced as she listens to them.
However, she cannot forget or forgive his callous treatment of her, family members (like her new-found half sister, Is) and acquaintances, nor can she ignore his naked ambition to become Master of the King’s Musick, come what may, up to and including murder. Can his artistic achievements make up for the loss of innocent lives and the continuance of social evils? How will it all be resolved? However it’s wrapped up Aiken fans will know that Dido and Pa‘s finale will be preceded by a rollercoaster ride, not just for our heroine (now around eleven or so years old) but for all those associated with her: her friends Simon and his sister Sophie, the new King Richard IV, the little mite designated ‘the Slut’ by Abednego, and of course all the lollpoops of London.
Lollpoops? The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue tells us the term lollpoop designated a ‘lazy, idle drone’ and naturally this is how Mrs Bloodvessel and Twite regard them, but actually they were poor working London children, some of the “ten thousand homeless orphans” Dido is told are found in the capital. Joan Aiken balances the cruel treatment and utter misery many of these will in reality have suffered with the songs and games enjoyed by groups of them, and by their institution the Birthday League, a force for social cohesion and communication for lollpoops across London.
When Joan Aiken completed this she no doubt envisioned a natural pause in Dido’s globetrotting and a cessation in the constant flow of vile adversaries she had to encounter. However, clearly the slight figure of ‘the Slut’ (in the original sense of “a dirty, slovenly or untidy woman”) appealed to her, leading her in due course to write Is (also known as Is Underground) and Cold Shoulder Road. We weren’t to be entertained again by the inimitable Dido for a good many years yet; perhaps the melancholy theme of a distant and deeply disappointing father which gives Dido and Pa such a poignant core was too uncomfortable for her to revisit Dido’s existence in a hurry.
As is my wont, I shall be composing a series of posts to examine aspects of this novel, beginning with the series’ troubled chronology and then passing on to people and places, themes and culture. After that I shall be diverting to Midnight is a Place (1974) before looking at the adventures of Is, finally going on to Midwinter Nightingale (2003) and The Witch of Clatteringshaws (2004), the final two offerings Joan managed to complete before her death. Needless to say, there will be spoilers in related posts though not in any reviews.